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Pandemic sourdough and parallel thinking: How we're all plugged in to the motherboard

A freshly-baked sourdough loaf cools on my kitchen counter, soon to be devoured.

I swear that I was ahead of the sourdough fad. Even though I birthed my first loaf just this morning, that slightly charred final product, which was gone by evening, took weeks of preparation to achieve.

By week, say, two of quarantine (just a guess, as I no longer have a working concept of time) I was already baking bread. My first attempt was a simple French bread recipe that utilized the active dry yeast I’d long neglected in my fridge. The result was a bit bland and dismally pale in color, but it looked and tasted much like “real” bread, which God knows couldn’t be found at the store. Just having bread in my house made me feel accomplished and more self-sufficient; if I, with zero experience, could make food out of flour, water and yeast, what else could I make with the things I already had lying around? Hand sanitizer? A potato farm?

I stuck with bread — probably because making it is a tactile, cheap and learnable process that yields a relatively quick and tasty reward. With a little time and elbow grease, anyone can make bread. And apparently, everyone was. Suddenly, yeast was selling out like it was toilet paper.

What if I run out of yeast? Or flour? the doomsday prepper inside me, who has gotten out of the trunk to ride shotgun since the pandemic ensued, worried. I ordered one of the last 25-pound bags of restaurant-grade, all purpose flour from Amazon and waited. As I waited, I thought of all the delicious creations I could bring into the world with 25 pounds of flour. My imagination ventured to tomato soup with sourdough bread and sharp cheddar grilled cheese with sourdough bread. Say what you will, but to me, there is no question that sourdough is the best kind of bread. But could I make it?

Enter pro baker Patrick Ryan, an Irish cutie on YouTube who opened my eyes to the alchemistic wonders of the oldest form of leaven bread. Little did I know that sourdough has been “trendy” for years in the baking world and that there is an entire subgenre of rugged yet approachable millennial artisans teaching gals like me how to make hearty, rock-hard loaves the size of my head in my own kitchen.

I was immediately sold on the ancient promise of prosperity that a loaf of sourdough brings — its rounded, pregnant curves and soft white innards cracking through golden crusted insignias. So beautiful is the (assumed sourdough) bread loaf that Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote about it 2,000 years ago in his Meditations: “When bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts which thus open, and have a certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker’s art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite the desire for eating.”

Yet the contemporary allure of sourdough lies not only in its timelessness, but also in its utility during end times. When I learned that I could grow my own unique strain of yeast, feed it daily like a pet, and never have to go to the store again so long as I had water and flour, I knew that I had to try it. What’s more, when would I ever have this much time to watch and nurture my little science experiment?

As I combined the first doses of flour and water into a paste and set it out in a bowl to literally rot beside my open kitchen window, I was mildly skeptical. I wondered if the supposed yeast in the dry foothills air would be as potent as that which imbued the Boudin starter in the cold, soupy haze of San Francisco 150 years ago. But after a week of feeding, the mixture began to take on a life of its own, bubbling and omitting a bready odor without provocation. I was filled with a sense of unfettered giddiness at the sight of my living creation. Despite my present loneliness and uncertainty, the rules of nature still applied. I believed that I was in on a treasured secret that few other laypeople knew.

Then, just as my starter strengthened to the point where I could transfer it to the fridge, the wave of “pandemic sourdough” crashed upon the craggy shores of social media. In a matter of days, the focus had shifted from family-friendly quarantine cookies to elbows-deep, hardcore “let it bench rest before proofing” endeavors, and just about everyone but grandmas were doing it.

I’ll admit I was disappointed. I felt that a million others were invading my very personal moment of growth and discovery. Maybe it’s narcissistic of me, but I’ve always been looking for that niche that no one else has taken yet — a vantage point above the herd. Somewhere in the baser regions of my mind, I’d wondered if fermented bread could make me special.

But if sourdough was trendy before, it was on a whole other level now. The media had taken notice, fueling an arguably absurd debate between born again bread converts (I guess that’s me) and puckermouthed naysayers. The attack was led by a handful of Twitter users who resolved that shaming home bakers for “wasting” precious flour, either through excessive breadmaking or throwing out portions of starter, was the hill they wanted to die on. And although I’ll present a counterargument that those finger-waggers have their spatulas too far up their asses to worry about baking, I concede that they succeeded in deflating my loaf just a little bit. As quickly as the fad began, they made it cool to hate sourdough bread. Let’s think about that for a second: We now find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic and a global financial crisis, and it is cool to disapprove of sourdough bread.

Couldn’t have predicted that one.

Or could we have?

If there’s anything this whole experience has taught me, it’s that my thoughts are not my own. I’ve suspected this all along, as I dove head-first into only wearing second-hand clothes just before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” hit the airwaves; or when I wore my mom’s vintage high-waisted Levi’s in 2008, just before every girl on the planet decided to pull up their pants. When I was really young, I shunned Bratz dolls for classic Barbies and avoided trends like they were the *ahem* coronavirus — except for when I couldn’t. Even with my aversion to the mainstream, you will find few Harry Potter or Game of Thrones fans as avid as I am.

But sourdough bread? It seemed so niche, so homespun. I had a hard time believing that the youth of America would be able to pull away from “Tiger King” long enough to embark on the weeks-long procedure of producing a commodity that, let’s be honest, has probably been restocked at the store by now. I had a hard time envisioning my plugged-in peers, hands buried in sticky dough, kneading it with burning arms and slapping it satisfyingly onto the cutting board, again and again, existing peacefully in that space until it “just feels ready.”

Yet after coming to terms with being basic, I began to find comfort in the reality of our shared existence. All at once, we are rediscovering that which is innate and nourishing to us. We are baking and planting and taking walks for the sake of breathing the fresh air. In Jungian terms, we have never forgotten these needs that dwell within our collective subconscious. Even in dreams, we share the anxiety of our teeth falling out and the heady joy of swimming through the air.

Parallel thinking brought us the invention of the crossbow on at least five separate occasions and the theory of evolution, conceived independently by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace at virtually the same time. It seems that the advent of social media has only accelerated our capacity for this. Which begs the question: What ideas and inventions will this moment of universal struggle bring? Perhaps we will step out into an era of heightened awareness with respect to our environment, our fellow humans, and the ways in which we engage with them. Or maybe we’ll devise a better way to make sourdough.

In the meantime, let the haters eat soda bread.

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